I hate being told what to do. And I hate when others do what they think they are obligated to do without meaning what they do.
In Philemon, Paul asks for the release of a slave, Onesimus. But he does not order it. He urges it out of love.
Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to [both] you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary. Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me.
This passage is powerful. In it, Paul urges the slave’s master to forgive the slave who has run away (and perhaps committed another crime against the master). To welcome him back with love. To release him. And in releasing him, releasing the master himself.
Paul refuses to order the master to accept him back and refuses to keep the slave away because doing either would prevent the master from having the opportunity to respond with love. Paul recognizes that you cannot force love. You cannot order love. Love must be chosen willingly. Forgiveness must be chosen willingly. The good you do must not be forced but voluntary. Paul is offering the master the opportunity to free the slave from any past debt or wrongdoing, and at the same time freeing the master to love and be loved. Paul suggests that the “bad” that the slave did (running away) will bring about good: “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”
We all have slaves in our lives. People who we have imprisoned or condemned in our own minds. People who have made us slaves to our own anger and ill will. Paul urges us to release these slaves. To welcome them with love. Not because of some obligation but out of a voluntary choice to love. Out of a choice to follow God’s greatest commandment. We all meet people everyday who seem useless to us. But Paul reminds us that each of them is an opportunity. An opportunity to choose love. An opportunity to share God’s love, so that they (and we) can be useful. After all, Onesimus is just one of us.
You call us to love, not just to do good out of obligation. Help me to release those who I have imprisoned in my thoughts and words. Open my heart to the true love that you call us to share. Open my heart to forgiveness. Help me to share your love every day with every one that I encounter.